The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disaster

27 Jan, 2020 at 11:38 | Posted in Education & School | 3 Comments

Neo-liberals and libertarians have always provided a lot of ideologically founded ideas and ‘theories’ to underpin their Panglossian view on markets. But when they are tested against reality they usually turn out to be wrong. The promised results are simply not to be found. And that goes for for-profit private schools too.

Sweden introduced a voucher-style reform in the 1990s and opened the market to for-profit schools. Since then the performance of the school system has deteriorated. The experiment soon turned out to be a momentous mistake. In Chile — the only other country in the world that has tried the same policy — it turned out as badly as in Sweden, and the country decided a couple of years ago to abandon the experiment. Sweden is now the only country in the world where we accept profit-driven companies to run publicly financed schools.

School_ChoiceWhat’s caused the recent crisis in Swedish education? Researchers and policy analysts are increasingly pointing the finger at many of the choice-oriented reforms that are being championed as the way forward for American schools. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that adding more accountability and discipline to American schools would be a bad thing, it does hint at the many headaches that can come from trying to do so by aggressively introducing marketlike competition to education …

In the wake of the country’s nose dive in the PISA rankings, there’s widespread recognition that something’s wrong with Swedish schooling … Competition was meant to discipline government schools, but it may have instead led to a race to the bottom …

It’s the darker side of competition that Milton Friedman and his free-market disciples tend to downplay: If parents value high test scores, you can compete for voucher dollars by hiring better teachers and providing a better education—or by going easy in grading national tests. Competition was also meant to discipline government schools by forcing them to up their game to maintain their enrollments, but it may have instead led to a race to the bottom as they too started grading generously to keep their students …

It’s a lesson that Swedish parents and students have learned all too well: Simply opening the floodgates to more education entrepreneurs doesn’t disrupt education. It’s just plain disruptive.

Ray Fisman

Henry M. Levin — distinguished economist and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University — wrote this a couple of years ago when he reviewed the evidence about the effects of vouchers:

VouchersOn December 3, 2012, Forbes Magazine recommended for the U.S. that: “…we can learn something about when choice works by looking at Sweden’s move to vouchers.” On March 11 and 12, 2013, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences did just that by convening a two day conference to learn what vouchers had accomplished in the last two decades … The following was my verdict:

  • On the criterion of Freedom of Choice, the approach has been highly successful. Parents and students have many more choices among both public schools and independent schools than they had prior to the voucher system.
  • On the criterion of productive efficiency, the research studies show virtually no difference in achievement between public and independent schools for comparable students. Measures of the extent of competition in local areas also show a trivial relation to achievement. The best study measures the potential choices, public and private, within a particular geographical area. For a 10 percent increase in choices, the achievement difference is about one-half of a percentile. Even this result must be understood within the constraint that the achievement measure is not based upon standardized tests, but upon teacher grades. The so-called national examination result that is also used in some studies is actually administered and graded by the teacher with examination copies available to the school principal and teachers well in advance of the “testing”. Another study found no difference in these achievement measures between public and private schools, but an overall achievement effect for the system of a few percentiles. Even this author agreed that the result was trivial.
  • With respect to equity, a comprehensive, national study sponsored by the government found that socio-economic stratification had increased as well as ethnic and immigrant segregation. This also affected the distribution of personnel where the better qualified educators were drawn to schools with students of higher socio-economic status and native students. The international testing also showed rising variance or inequality in test scores among schools. No evidence existed to challenge the rising inequality.Accordingly, I rated the Swedish voucher system as negative on equity.

A recent Swedish study on the effects of school-choice concluded:

The results from the analyses made in this paper confirm that school choice, rather than residential segregation, is a more important factor determining variation in grades than is residential segregation.

voucherThe empirical analysis in this paper confirms the PISA-based finding that between-school variance in student performance in the Swedish school system has increased rapidly since 2000. We have also been able to show that this trend towards increasing performance gaps cannot be explained by shifting patterns of residential segregation. A more likely explanation is that increasing possibilities for school choice have triggered a process towards a more unequal school system. A rapid growth in the number of students attending voucher-financed, independent schools has been an important element of this process …

The idea of voucher-based independent school choice is commonly ascribed to Milton Friedman. Friedman’s argument was that vouchers would decrease the role of government and expand the opportunities for free enterprise. He also believed that the introduction of competition would lead to improved school results. As we have seen in the Swedish case, this has not happened. As school choice has increased, differences between schools have increased but overall results have gone down. As has proved to be the case with other neo-liberal ideas, school choice—when tested—has not been able to deliver the results promised by theoretical speculation.

John Östh, Eva Andersson, Bo Malmberg

What have we learned from this expensive experiment? School education should be publicly funded and provided by public schools and not by companies driven by profit interests!

For more on my own take on this issue — only in Swedish, sorry — see here and here.


  1. As shown here by Lars, Sweden is not a “Middleway” no more. And swedes like my self, should not lecture other in the so called “”Swedish Model”! She is gone, send me a picture of her!

  2. And people ask me every week about the so called “Swedish Model” !- She is gone i say, but i can send you a picture of her i, use to say. It´s one of our “Spitzen competencies” and , we export those beauties to the USA and elsewhere ,everyday, and get paid for it for it, in iron, copper which, we already have .That´s how international trade ‘works, I usually say.

  3. Not quite the way Australia did it, but lots of public money going to private schools. Started in the 1970s under Whitlam (as part of a deal to neutralise Catholic vote), but accelerated under Howard as part of neo-liberal agenda. Outcome has been just as bad here.

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